The Politics of Monuments

Statues across the city are criticized, replaced and introduced in response to social issues

13 Oct 2020 | 02:20

In June 2018, First Lady Chirlane McCray announced the She Built NYC project. The project, backed by the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, aims to address the city’s lack of statues honoring women. In 2018, there were only five real-life women honored in New York statuary: French historical hero Joan of Arc, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (both in Riverside Park), abolitionist Harriet Tubman (Harlem), Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (Midtown) and novelist Gertrude Stein (Bryant Park).

A year later, She Built NYC announced seven women it planned to honor. In Manhattan, statues of anti-segregation activist Elizabeth Jennings Graham and of transgender rights advocates Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera are planned for Grand Central Terminal and Greenwich Village, respectively. In Brooklyn, a statue of Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to be elected to Congress and to run for a major party’s presidential nomination, will be erected in Prospect Park.

At Queens Borough Hall, a statue is planned of iconic jazz singer Billie Holiday. In the Bronx, St. Mary’s Park will gain a statue of Dr. Helen Rodriguez Trías, a women’s rights advocate and public health pioneer. The landing of the Staten Island Ferry will gain a statue of Katherine Walker, a lifesaving lighthouse keeper.

In August, Central Park gained its first statue depicting historical women. The statue, its base reading “Women’s Rights Pioneers,” depicts Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and was funded by the Monumental Women’s Statue Fund. A month after its unveiling, the statue seemed to have struck a chord with the public, its base decorated with tributes to the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, another pioneer for women’s rights.

In March 2021, on her 88th birthday, a statue of Justice Ginsburg will be unveiled in her home borough of Brooklyn. “She was a monumental figure of equality, and we can all agree that she deserves a monument in her honor,” said Governor Andrew Cuomo, announcing the state’s intention to install the statue in September.

Originally, the Central Park statue was set to depict only Stanton and Anthony, and would feature them holding a scroll with a list of names of 22 other women’s rights activists, including Truth. This design was criticized as erasing Black women from the suffrage movement, and redesigned to include Truth.

“Felt Disrespected”

On October 12, as part of the city’s virtual Columbus Day Parade, Governor Cuomo unveiled a statue of Maria Francesa Cabrini, known as Mother Cabrini, in Battery Park. Mother Cabrini, an Italian immigrant, founded schools and hospitals throughout the city, becoming the first American citizen to be canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church, and the patron saint of immigrants.

This statue can be seen as part of the rivalry between Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio. Last October, Mother Cabrini received the most nominations to the She Built NYC campaign, but was not selected to receive a statue, in part because there already exists a shrine to her in Hudson Heights. Cuomo stepped in, promising that the state would build the statue, telling reporters ahead of the 2019 Columbus Day parade that “the Italian American community felt disrespected” by the snub.

Another figure related to the Italian American community, the 1892 statue of Christopher Columbus at Columbus Circle, underwritten by Italian American businessmen and the New York-based Italian-language newspaper “Il Progresso,” has faced controversy and calls for removal. In 2017, the statue received full-time NYPD protection after an incident in which it was vandalized with red paint.

Amid this controversy, Angelo Vivolo, president of the Columbus Citizens Foundation, which organizes the city’s Columbus Day Parade, remarked to CBS News: “You can ask [Italian Americans] how to make a tomato sauce and they’ll all have a different recipe but when it comes to maintaining the statue at Columbus Circle they’re all united — citywide, statewide and across the country,”

Opponents of the statue note that Columbus’s arrival in the Americas marked the beginning of centuries of brutal European colonization and abuse of Native Americans. Columbus himself was reprimanded by Spain in 1500 for ruling Hispaniola through torture, murder and enslavement.

Although de Blasio announced a commission to review possible hate symbols in statuary, the Columbus monument was untouched. The only statue affected was of Dr. J. Marion Sims, who, through grisly forced experimentation on non-anesthetized enslaved women, made innovations in gynecology. In April 2018, the statue was moved from Central Park to Green-Wood Cemetery, near Sims’ grave.

In June, the American Museum of Natural History announced its intent to remove a statue of Theodore Roosevelt, erected in 1940, from the museum’s entrance. The subject of controversy was aimed at the statue’s composition. It depicts Roosevelt on horseback, with two men, one Native American, one African, walking by his side, a composition which has been seen as representing white supremacy.

The statue’s sculptor, James Earl Fraser, stated that he intended to depict “Roosevelt’s friendliness to all races.” In 2019, the AMNH addressed the controversy surrounding the statue in an exhibit.

The AMNH’s decision to remove the Roosevelt statue, as its June statement reads, was also inspired by “the ever-widening movement for racial justice that has emerged after the killing of George Floyd.” Roosevelt’s great grandson, Theodore Roosevelt IV, agreed with the decision, saying, “The world does not need statues, relics of another age, that reflect neither the values of the person they intend to honor nor the values of equality and justice.”